By Debbie Donsky

And How I Got to Where I am as a Leader and Educator

Flowers stylized with rainbow colours

THERE ARE FIVE people you meet in heaven,” the Blue Man suddenly said. “Each of us was in your life for a reason. You may not have known the reason at the time, and that is what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth.” Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, p 21.

This year, I had the incredible opportunity to work with a team of amazing educators on the project, Identity through Art: Voices from English Language Learners.

We were in a collaborative meeting focused on Modern Learning thinking about the possibilities if we worked across teams in our department and I pulled together three consultants: Mandy Lau, Chunha Park and Jon Lewis. (Check out Jon’s gallery, Art in House, in Barrie that he owns with his wife!) We were later joined by Nada Aoudeh and Justina So as we considered what is possible when we join forces, skills and passions in the service of some of our most vulnerable learners.

We developed two inquiry questions:

  1. How does multimodal expression through the arts support language and literacy learning while positively affirming the learner’s identity?
  2. How might we incorporate multimodality in the classroom learning?

Students engaged in the symbolism of visual arts and language to communicate, connect and express themselves. We had a gallery show last week and were honoured when CBC television came to interview our team and the students involved.

The students were articulate, courageous, and inspiring. You can view the interviews here and see images from the day below in the tweets shared by those involved and some who visited our event.

This project reminded me of what is possible when we pull together those who have talent, passion and skill. We designed something truly amazing that we believe not only had a profound impact on those involved but will hopefully inspire these types of meaningful projects going forward from our department.

So where do these ideas come from? This is where the five people come in…


In Mitch Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the main character dies (not a spoiler alert given the title) and on his way to heaven he meets five people, some he knew and some he didn’t, who had the most profound impact on his life. When I think of this in terms of my career as an educator, there are many. But, those who have actually changed the trajectory of my life, I have five as well.


Lillian Blakey

The first person is Lillian Blakey. The whole project was truly modelled after the work of Lillian. When we began thinking about our project, I shared some of her art and writing with the team to envision what we could do with multimedia art, identity and storytelling. She was kind enough to record her story and we included it on the project website from which the students and staff could learn from and draw ideas.

I met Lillian early in my career. She taught me about equity, student voice and how the arts can be a vehicle for both. She was a consultant in what was then the North York Board of Education which would eventually be subsumed by the Toronto District School Board.

This is one of my favourite paintings of Lillians. She is holding her doll behind the barbed wire while her mother toils in the background tending to the beets in Alberta during the Japanese Internment.

As a young girl, Lillian, along with her family, were expelled to Internment Camps in Alberta during and after World War II as Japanese Canadians. Lillian has used her art and her uncanny ability to tell a story to move through the hardships in her life and in turn, has used those experiences and talents to inspire others — particularly students and educators. She has had her work highlighted in many galleries, the Japanese Cultural Centre and has published several books.

With Lillian, I worked on many projects that framed for me what it means to design learning for the students we serve while integrating curriculum in deep and meaningful ways. I learned about authentic voice, critical thinking and critical literacy. I learned about Indigenous Ways of Knowing, personal narratives and the role that storytelling plays in engaging our learners and teaching them that their stories matter.

When I shared back with her about our project she wrote me back and commended me for the teacher that I am. As I read her words tears welled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. Her words bring me back to myself in the most profound way.

Mira Hattiangadi

The second person is Mira Hattiangadi. Mira was the principal at Joyce Public School. I had always worked in the east end of the North York Board of Education but the school I was at, Brookbanks PS, was on the chopping block as the Ontario Ministry of Education was trying to reduce spending and smaller schools took the hit first. I knew I wanted to get pregnant and was worried that if I waited the year when the school would be closing that I would be nine months pregnant trying to convince someone to hire me even though I would be gone for at least six months. Incidentally, I did get pregnant as planned with my daughter, Rachel, and she was born on July 13th so it was a good decision!

I landed myself at Joyce Public School after Lillian had recommended me to Mira as they had a long history working together. The two of them, along with their Superintendent published this children’s early reading book series called, Our Wonderful World. It was a collection of books supporting new readers which highlighted stories from many different cultures. They were based on stories from families in the board and each story was illustrated by local artists (including Mira’s daughter), photos of the actual families and narrated by them as well on the tapes that were part of the collection. I used it in my classrooms and my students would get up and dance to the stories on tape as the background music was also drawn from each culture. They heard voices that sounded like their parents and grandparents reading English but with a Spanish accent, an Arabic accent, a Hindi accent. It was truly groundbreaking.

Mira was a different type of school leader. She was in the classrooms ALL the time. She knew the community and connected with them in meaningful ways recognizing that the school is truly the hub of the community. She offered reading courses for families, access to the school’s computer lab and babysitting. She hired people from the community to help around the school at lunch time, in classrooms, and with translation. She was a true visionary.

She was rarely in the office but we always knew we could find her in Rhea Perreira-Foyle’s kindergarten class across from the office. She loved the little ones, especially the chubby ones. Mira experienced joy on a daily basis. She had fun with the students and laughed with them. She is the one who told me to consider becoming a principal. As many of us who love the classroom do, I hesitated. I loved being with the students and the thought of being in an office sequestered away from all that joy seemed like it didn’t fit who I saw myself to be. She then told me this: Who you are as a teacher is who you are as a principal. When I saw who she was as a leader, I saw that she was right and for the first time, I saw myself in that role.

Mira taught me about social entrepreneurialism. She applied to grants all the time to raise funds to do great things for this small community where so many were living in poverty. With her support, I applied to a federal grant to do some work with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms tied to the grade 5 social studies curriculum and this was recognized by the team member on the committee and we then received at a call from the Ministry of Education for a grant of $700 000 to implement technology in our school. We were going to be one of five schools selected in the province to be a hub of excellence on the integration of technology into schools to see what was possible.

This opportunity truly changed the trajectory of my career.

Mira and I were invited the following year to join the Ministry of Education at the Ontario Knowledge Network for Learning (OKNL), now eLearning Ontario. We would take what we did at Joyce Public School and help to design hubs of excellence in technology integration across the province.

Mira passed away on November 28th, 2014. She had been ill and went from being a world traveller, vibrant, spending as much time with her beautiful grandchildren as she possibly could to being weak and slower until her illness finally took her. Since retiring, she split her year into three parts. One third in India where she was born and many of her childhood friends lived, one third in England with her daughter and grandchildren and one third in Toronto with her husband. I used to joke that she was like Mary Poppins. I never knew when she was coming back to Toronto but when the winds changed and winter eased into spring, just as the blossoms came, I would expect a call from her as she returned to Toronto again. She was like a butterfly and the loss of her wings was truly felt across the world.

Ron St Louis

When Mira and I joined the team at the Ministry of Education, the Education Officer and visionary for the team was Ron St Louis. I worked with Ron twice…first at the Ontario Knowledge Network for Learning and then a few years later at eLearning Ontario where Ron assembled a team of educators from across the province to develop the eLearning Strategy.

Ron and I developed an unlikely friendship. A few years after meeting him, the movie, Million Dollar Baby was released and I eventually sent him a copy on DVD explaining to him that he was my Frank (Clint Eastwood’s character) and I was Maggie (Hilary Swank’s character). He tried to appear tough but he was all mush on the inside.

He taught me three things…

First, he taught me to see myself as others see me (although admittedly I am still working on this one). He gave me opportunities to develop my voice, challenge myself, and to present in front of high stakes teams. There was one meeting where he picked me to speak to the room of Directors of Education from across the province to share the eLearning Strategy with them. I remember at one point one of the directors asked about an aspect of the eLearning strategy that wasn’t public yet. Like any good coach, he stood at the back of the room and leaned against the wall by the door watching me. Being present but far enough away that I could hold my own. I looked up at him wondering if it was okay to respond to the questions and he nodded. Knowing everyone had seen me peer over to him and before responding I decided to say, “Ron said it is okay to share that!” and they all burst into laughter.

After the meeting, a man came up to me. He was a leader for all of the Catholic boards across the province. He handed me his card and told me that I had an amazing presentation style and that I should never lose my honest humility and humour and told me how refreshing it was to hear me speak. I was beaming.

When I finally left Ron for the second time it was to become a Vice Principal in the York Region District School Board. My first day at my school was a beautiful sunny May morning as I drove east on the highway I called him, worried about how I could possibly do this and all he said to me was, “Be yourself kid. There ain’t nuthin better than that!” These, like so many of his words and actions ring through my head and again, draw me back to myself.

The second lesson Ron taught me was about what education really means. He was a high level hockey player and then suffered a terrible injury to his leg when he smashed into the net and was never able to play at that level again. Knowing he needed to change his goals from the NHL to something a little more reasonable, Ron became a carpenter. It wasn’t long before he parlayed that into becoming a design and tech teacher though he did so before he had his teaching degree. Ron made a career of getting the job before the qualifications. As a design and tech teacher he made it his business to connect with the kids who were most disengaged. He would get to know them and then take what they were passionate about and tie it back to the curriculum so that it was both meaningful and engaging. He told me that he did a project with the students in his class where they designed and built a skate park. The students managed to not only complete his course and get credit for it but got a mathematics credit as well.

Even at the ministry, working at a Superintendent level, he decided, finally to get the qualifications while in the job. Through his life and how he lived he taught me the importance of seeing the person and not the academic qualifications. He was not much into computers but he knew that the eLearning Strategy would provide access to learners, alternative ways of learning and personalization to students across Ontario and that was something he could get behind.

The final lesson Ron taught me, though it wasn’t intentional, was through the way he died. Ron became a Superintendent of Education in the Northeastern Catholic District School Board in Timmins, Ontario. He contracted a flu virus and rather than taking time to rest and recover he pushed through driving home to his family in Windsor. Ron’s biggest passions were his family including his wife and two daughters and his dog, Rudy. Everything he did and his whole work ethic were centred around his love for his family and ensuring that they were well cared for. The irony of course is that he passed far too young and though he certainly provided for them, I am sure they would give anything for one more day with him. Ron passed away on December 29th, 2014, just one month shy of his 62nd birthday and one month after Mira. The lesson he taught me here was one I am still working on…as someone who waits for my body to scream at me before I listen, I am learning to take the time to recover from illness, rest and most importantly realize that putting family first has absolutely nothing to do with money. I miss you Ron…every day.

Matt Champion

My fourth person is Matt Champion. Anyone who has ever asked me about leadership will invariably hear about the mantras I hold in my head and 99% of them come from this man. As a new vice-principal I was lucky enough to land with him as my mentor. The almost three years I worked with him were some of my best as an educator. He taught me what it means to lead from behind, how to listen, how to laugh at myself, and how to always, no matter what, keep students at the centre of everything we do.

He was devoted to his mother, his children and ultimately, to himself as he came to know himself and the person he wanted to be. Just yesterday we chatted and he told me that he looks back on who he was ten years ago and he can’t even see how those two people are connected but I can…they are connected by reflection, honesty, integrity, love for education, children and family. They are connected by not taking oneself too seriously and although they both have every reason to be arrogant, they both walk with profound humility. They both know how to embrace life and live passionately but not caring if there is anyone there to witness it because both of these men do it to live a good life and not for anyone’s approval or attention.

Matt taught me to allow a child to feel his or her emotions and that all expression is valid. He gave me opportunity to grow, and shine and develop as a leader. He taught me not to take things personally…even if people want you to and he taught me that no matter what age we are, we can always reinvent ourselves.

Ruth Lambert

Last, but certainly not least, is Ruth Lambert. Ruth was my superintendent for 8 years as I went from vice-principal to principal and beyond. She gave me access to incredible opportunities and saw something in me early on. Ruth is a beautiful woman and everything I wish I could be. She is always impeccably dressed, her hair is perfect, she is articulate, intelligent and insightful. Despite all of her talents, her appearance, and her knowledge, the best thing about Ruth is her sense of humour. Like Matt, she certainly knows how to laugh at herself and this made her accessible as a system leader to those of us who were just beginning our leadership journey.

She is the first to say she doesn’t know what she is doing but she always does — it is a tactic. By expressing her vulnerability she created an environment where the deepest learning could happen. I learned her expressions, her micro movements to know if she agreed or disagreed. I watched her move through complex situations with a “yes, and” that would bring the person in and still challenge them at the same time.

She encouraged me to apply to the principal role three times and much like the Jewish tradition of having to ask three times before you can be invited to convert to Judaism, it was on the third time that Ruth told me it was no longer had a choice. I didn’t want to move. I was with Matt and why would I ever want to leave a principal like that? It was at an amazing school. I was happy. I had spent my whole career looking to the next opportunity…the next LTO, the next contract, the next school, the next degree, and now, having completed my doctorate, working in a school that I loved and with a man I adored why in the world would I want to leave? Ruth asked me one question…She asked me if I was comfortable. I said YES! for the first time in as long as I can remember, I am comfortable. And that is when the other shoe dropped. She told me this…

Deb, you are the kind of person who will never feel ready. You think you need every experience and every qualification before you think you can move on. So I am telling you that when you feel comfortable, that is your cue. That is when you need to seek a new challenge because you aren’t done yet.

When I went through the principal process and the director asked Ruth to speak about me she told him, “All I have on Debbie is years of experience” and proceeded to list all of the things she believed about me but I was stuck on her first statement.

Ruth not only taught me about myself, she taught me about others. As we worked through school improvement in our networks, many administrators would talk about staff who were resistant to change. Ruth turned it on us and asked, “Are they resistant or are they afraid?” and just like that she opened the conversation to one of empathy. We began to ask about building relationships through trust, creating spaces of learning instead of compliance. She did this all the time.

When this opportunity was presented to me I sat at the kitchen table with my family not knowing what to do. My daughter, Rachel said, “Why don’t you call Ruth Lambert?” I did just that and this woman said she didn’t know how she could help me as she has been retired for several years and then proceeded to talk me through it until it was clear.


I don’t know where my path will lead me next as I return to the Ministry of Education, now as a Student Achievement Officer and with yet another great educator, Kathy Witherow. This woman is my future. She is dynamic, incredibly bright, and passionate. She is honest, kind and someone I both admire and love laughing with. I am excited for this new challenge and I hope that what I have left is a legacy of my own because although I might return to the York Region District School Board, when we take the fork in the road, we never know where it will lead.

One thing I know for certain is that I will bring my Five People with me wherever I go.

Thank you.

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